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March 3, 2012

The Slavery Issue Raised on Who Do You Think You Are? Food for Thought

Season 3 of Who Do You Think You Are? sponsored by with Reba McEntire last night was exceptionally good. That episode brought many issues to the surface not the least of which was the fact that one of Reba's ancestors owned 10 slaves.  Reba was shown documents detailing the selling and acquisition of a few of his slaves, one of them a 3 year old boy, another a 14 month old toddler. Reba was understandably shocked and dismayed on learning this.

The historian assisting in this phase of the research pointed out that many of us will find that we had an ancestor who did own slaves. It's not something many of us want to admit to, and perhaps we don't even know about it (yet) but we may be faced with that hard fact as we research further. I myself was quite dismayed to learn that one of my ancestors Hendrick Meesen Vrooman owned slaves in Schenectady New York before 1690.

I also found my 3rd great-grandfather Levi Peer with a slave in his household in 1830 in Pennsylvania. His brother Edward also owned slaves, but I had no idea this existed in our family. I understand the historical perspective but I still felt great aversion to accepting that one of my ancestors was involved in human trafficking. 

I'd never thought of the possibility that my family were slave owners. We aren't from the southern United States which is where I naively thought all slave owners resided. Too many "Gone With the Wind" type movies left me unaware of the deeper impact slavery had and the far-reaching consequences.

I was glad that Reba's episode brought this to light.  It's important to remember that slavery existed and it was horrific but it existed. And many of us may be faced with learning that one or more of our ancestors participated in it.

My husband has not found slave owners in his family lines but rather the opposite. He is a descendant of a fugitive slave named Jonathan Butler. We've not yet  discovered where in America Jonathan lived before fleeing to Canada so we have no historical context for his life before 1817.

In what to me shows human nature at its less than best, the fact that my husband has black ancestry was hidden for many years by a generation that made the decision to pass as white. One branch proudly proclaimed their black heritage, one branch deliberately hid it (and still hides it), and my husband's branch simply lost the knowledge over the passage of time. 

All my husband's grandmother knew was that her grandfather Joseph disappeared in 1900 over a "scandal" of some kind. We believe the "scandal" was the fact that Joseph's grandfather was the fugitive slave Jonathan Butler, a fact that was not known to the woman who married him. It may be mind-boggling to us in this day and age but prejudice existed and lay hidden or sometimes blatantly exposed for many of our ancestors.

If you are not yet caught up in watching Who Do You Think You Are? you might want to reconsider. Watch an episode and see how it impacts on you.  Many of the episodes raise questions and any discussion that follows can be very helpful. Raising awareness is always a positive outcome as far as I am concerned.

How about you? If you found out your ancestor was either a slave owner or a runaway slave, would you hide that fact? Or would you accept the fact and learn more about it and about the historical events surrounding it?


Debi Austen said...

I've found ancestors on my maternal grandfather's side who were slave owners and willed their slaves to others upon their death. I'm fascinated by it and can't wait to learn more. The only reason I'm not researching it currently is because I'm focusing on other lines. Slavery is not something we like to think about today but it was common and acceptable in that time.

Jo said...

I'm so glad to read someone's blog who is so positive about WDYTYA. There are so many who write negative reviews....I find the show so engaging and the subjects all display the wonder and excitement of finding those unknown ancestors. I discovered ancestors who were slave owners and as Debi wrote that was common especially in the south. On the other had I have some deep southern roots who did own slaves. Again, nice post.

Deason Hunt said...

I'm a proud southerner and find things to admire in many of my ancestors. What I am not proud of is that a few owned slaves or were in slave-owning families or of those who were and are prejudiced toward others because of race, religion, gender, etc. They should have been ashamed and not practiced either of those shameful activities, but at the same time, I still feel family love and loyalty to them. Their blood runs in my body. I have some understanding (but not as much as if I were a victim of these practices) of how descendants of slaves can still feel resentment today.

Betsy Miller said...

I was struck by how many viewers seemed to think "of course that family owned slaves - everyone in the South owned slaves!" That's not true, and not only for North Carolina.

My great-aunt always pointed to hand-written receipts for renting slave labor as evidence that her family never owned slaves ("they were too poor to"). She had never looked at the 1860 census, and was not happy when I shared my findings from that source.

Red Ryder said...

The first mistake many make is believing revisionist history that paints the North as non-slave owners and as great emancipators. The civil war war not fought over slavery but over the constitutional right of the governed to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government. Slavery was a hot button topic of the time and would have resolved itself with or without the civil war. Indeed though, it was the perfect smoke screen with which to hide the Union's illegal invasion of the Southern states in order to force them back into the Union. One only needs to research New York's recent opening of their slavery museum to see that the Union was just as culpable in slavery as the South. Read Lincoln's speeches and find out how he really felt about the issue. No slaves were freed until the 13th Amendment which was well after the war.

Kristin said...

I guess you are asking this question to people who assume they are white? As a black person, I knew my ancestors were slaves from childhood and never have hidden the fact. I assume that my white ancestors did own slaves. If I learned their identity, I would not try to hide it. We are what we are. The known and the unknown. Hopefully one day the unknown will become known.

Rochrunner said...

When I was growing up, I remember asking my mother if my Kentucky ancestors might have owned slaves. She answered that we didn't know, but if they did she was sure they were "good" owners.

Well, now that I've done my research, I not only know for sure that many did own slaves, but know some of the slaves' names, and even have a picture of one of them. I often wonder what became of them and their descendants. My ancestors' graves are still there, but all physical traces of all these other people are long gone.

A sad story that I now know I'm part of.

Dawn said...

A good read on this subject is The Hairstons by Henry Wiencek about a Southern family who found that the two races often commingled together. As my father has deep Southern roots, I am not surprised who did or did not own slaves and would not be surprised if I discovered a line that included African American ancestry. Nor would I hide it. In my family, there are several instances of commingling of the races in the present generation, something the older generations have struggled with because of the context of the historical era in which they lived.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Roadrunner how wonderful though that you are researching and preserving the details of those slaves lives.

I hope you have given thought to publishing your findings and that photograph online!

What a historical treasure for everyone but particularly for those searching their black heritage

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Debi - yes slavery is horrible. But it existed and we should never forget the horrors it brought.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Jo, I think there is always good to be found. I don't like all the nit-picking either. It's a tv show, meant to entertain and encourage people to search their families. And it does that very well

Anonymous said...

My ancestors owned a number of slaves in SC. I've spent the last ten years researching and writing a family memoir about the psychological legacy of owning slaves, and how that affected later generations of white families in the South. Troubling, profound, fascinating. Something we all need to think about. The consequences of slavery are built into our family histories. Description of book is under "memoir" at